Robert Reich: The Economy Is Rigged Against Ordinary People

Construction workers at the Tesla Gigafactory under construction near Sparks, Nevada, on July 26. Robert Reich writes that even those at the top would do better in a society that hadn’t become so susceptible to demagogues blaming immigrants and imports. James Glover II/reuters

This article first appeared on

Your typical wage is below what it was in the late 1970s, in terms of what it can buy.

Two-thirds of you are living paycheck to paycheck.

Almost 30 percent of you don't have steady employment: You're working part time or on contract, with none of the labor protections created over the last 80 years—no unemployment insurance if you lose your job, no worker's compensation if you're injured, no time-and-a-half pay for working more than 40 hours a week, no minimum wage, and you have to pay your own Social Security.

Over 37 percent of you have dropped out of the workforce altogether because you've become too discouraged even to look for work. That's a near record.

As if all this weren't enough, the schools and infrastructure on which you rely have been neglected, and the ravages of climate change—droughts, fires and floods—are worsening.

Yet the American economy is twice as large as it was in the late 1970s. As a nation, we are richer than we've ever been. We could afford to do so much better.

None of this has happened by accident. Those with great wealth have translated it into political power. And with that power they've busted labor unions (to which a third of private-sector workers belonged in the 1950s but now fewer than 7 percent do), halved the taxes they pay (from a top marginal rate of 91 percent in the 1950s to 39 percent today, and from an effective rate of 52 percent then to 18 percent now), cut safety nets, deregulated Wall Street, privatized much of the economy, expanded bankruptcy protection for themselves while narrowing it for you, forced you into mandatory arbitration of employment disputes, expanded their patents and intellectual property, got trade deals that benefited them but squeezed your pay and concentrated their market power so you pay more for pharmaceuticals, health insurance, airfare, food, internet service and much else.

This is bad for everyone. Even those at the top would do better with a smaller share of an economy that was growing because the middle class was expanding. And they'd do better in a society that hadn't become so angry and susceptible to demagogues blaming immigrants and imports for what has happened.

But none of this will change unless we change it. No single person—not even Bernie Sanders, had he become president—can do what needs to be done, alone.

You and I and others must continue to organize and mobilize. Do not find refuge in cynicism. Change is slow and at times seems hopeless. But change is inevitable.

Do not wait for politicians to take the lead. We are the leaders.

Robert Reich is the chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, and Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He has written 14 books, including the best-sellers Aftershock, The Work of Nations and Beyond Outrage and, most recently, Saving Capitalism. He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and co-creator of the award-winning documentary Inequality for All.